In a letter to Chinua Achebe, John Updike once admired the swift and surprising ruin of the hero at the conclusion of Arrow of God. It was an ending, Updike ventured, that “few Western novelists would have contrived; having created a hero they would not let him crumble, nor are they, by and large, as truthful as you in their witness to the cruel reality of process.” The Nigerian novelist had to agree. “Of course,” he later wrote, “a Westerner would be most reluctant to destroy ‘in a page or two’ the angel and paragon of creation—the individual hero. If indeed he has to be destroyed, it must be done expansively with detailed explanations and justifications, not to talk of lamentations.”
Those lamentations of the West, our tortured attachment to the individual, might help explain why we harbor such a chatter of anxiety around the notion of autobiography. Ever since the word entered the English language, the very concept has troubled critics of literature. In 1798, one year after the Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation of “autobiography,” the philosopher Friedrich Schlegel declared that such works were written by “neurotics,” authors plagued by “self-love,” and, most tellingly, “women who also coquette with history.”
Coincidentally or not, the term “autobiography” appeared during the ascendancy of the novel. And as the novel gradually became the locus of serious art, the autobiography and the memoir were increasingly accused of artlessness and narcissism. By 1997, Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley was constructing a mythology of cultural collapse around the publication of Kathryn Harrison’s memoir The Kiss: “Thus we have a process of regression that marches steadily downhill from Ulysses to Portnoy’s Complaint to The Kiss.”
The idea that personal narrative is too small, too inward, too individual to reflect our grander collective concerns, is a variation on an attitude that Achebe once observed among critics of fiction. Because the drama in some African novels depended upon the fate of a group, not an individual, these works were dismissed as being too local in their reach. If this seems contradictory, the real problem, of course, was that the group in question was African. In his 1984 lecture, “The Writer and His Community,” Achebe remarked:
In the area of literature, I recall that we have sometimes been informed by the West and its local zealots that the African novels we write are not novels at all because they do not quite fit the specifications of that literary form which came into being at a particular time in specific response to the new spirit of individual freedom set off by the decay of feudal Europe and the rise of capitalism. This form, we were told, was designed to explore individual rather than social predicaments.
The African novel and the American memoir have both suffered from critiques fashioned around the word “universal,” a term so absurd in its scope and so vague in its meaning that it is all but useless for anything except reminding certain people that they do not matter. “I should like to see the word ‘universal’ banned altogether from discussions of African literature,” Achebe once declared, “until such a time as people cease to use it as a synonym for the narrow, self-serving parochialism of Europe, until their horizon extends to include all the world.”
Since the advent in this country of what is sometimes called New Memoir, that upwelling of personal narratives in the past few decades, it has become fashionable to disparage the memoir for, among other things, being available to everyone—the young, the unknown, and the marginal. This stance betrays some nostalgia for the memoirs of great men. Yet the innovators of American memoir, those writers who have expanded the artistic bounds of autobiographical writing—Maxine Hong Kingston, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Hilton Als, D. J. Waldie, Abigail Thomas, Alison Bechdel—have not tended, lately, to be great men. Beyond their formal ingenuity, these writers have insisted on the literary potential of individual lives. But they have not made heroes of themselves. Because in a successful memoir the narrator, who we might think of as the hero, is not swiftly ruined as often as she is slowly disassembled. And so the hero, and by proxy the self, is broken open and laid out before us without lament.